Diversity Within a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Some readers may be thinking, why talk about a movie on a feminist blog? Due to the popularity of films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it seems worth the mild spoilers to comment on the various associated gender conversations this new work brings up. For instance, the importance of visibility or representation for women (especially women of color) within film and other mediums continues to be of vital concern, as noted in previous blogs through work by Feminist Frequency and Miss Representation. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (www.seejane.org) also studies and encourages gender visibility both on (main and periphery characters as well as crowd scenes) and behind the screen, emphasizing the impact of “if she can see it, she can be it.”

Gender Bias without borders

Since Disney has taken a hold of Lucasfilm and therefore the Star Wars franchise, people have been wondering what to expect. Newer Disney films like Brave, Frozen, and Maleficent have shown strides for the corporation that, some may argue, contains some feminist elements. Beyond the common Bechdel-Wallace test (http://amysmartgirls.com/what-is-the-bechdel-test-and-why-does-it-matter/), other ways of analyzing such works could be helpful in determining their benefit toward women. For example, one easy and free way to evaluate TV shows, films, video games, and more is called #THEREPTEST and can be found at http://therepresentationproject.org/educator-school/#curriculum.

So should we, as feminists, really be impressed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Each audience member will have their own opinion, but there are some clear beneficial and problematic elements. For example, as Katherine Cusumano notes in “How ‘The Force Awakens’ Heralds a Feminist Future for Star Wars” from Bustle, the presence of women in the filmmaking process can be helpful. She states:

Kathleen Kennedy has spent the past three years since     taking over Lucasfilm fostering an environment in which     women have creative liberty on par with their male peers, in which they partake in writing dialogue and setting up    shots and acting and editing . . . [that] promises a     female-forward dynasty to rival that of the ancient Jedi order.

This emphasis on women hiring other women in various parts of filmmaking not only highlights the importance of making a conscious effort to rectify inequality within this industry but can also have an impact on the representations of women that are developed within these projects. Especially considering the variety of fans and theater viewers, not to mention the mainstream popularity of independent and empowered characters who are female and people of color, this could be the beginning of a very beautiful development indeed.

Star Wars

As far as the characters themselves go, there are some clear developments. In the previous six movies powerful female figures were often overshadowed by male characters (Padme Amidala) or saved by men (Leia), but the emphasis on Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as Finn (John Boyega) in the new film emphasizes more of an egalitarian balance of characters within narratives beyond that of a white man. In fact, Rey has a significant amount of screen time and spoken lines, displaying physical and mental power, intelligence, and strength.

As Laura Bates observes in the article, “5 Things Star Wars: The Force Awakens Has Taught Us About Feminism,”

What makes Rey an effortless, fist-pumping, feminist      heroine is the fact that her sex is incidental to her   smart, strong actions. Her story isn’t about being a woman, or defying specific stereotypes; she just kicks ass like      any other central character.

Christopher Hooton also describes Rey in, “The Female Force Awakens as Star Wars Has Four Strong Women Roles”: “[She] comes to Finn’s aid[,] her character isn’t sexualized, she is strong, independent and adept at technology and flying ships.” Rey even parodies the traditional damsel-in-distress trope at one point. Like Luke Skywalker before her, she is trusted with responsibility without being reduced to a romantic or objectified role and easily earns the respect of the people around her (including Han Solo). These qualities, among others, seem to be responsible for the character’s immense popularity.

Beyond Rey, the increased visibility in crowd scenes and through characters like Chaptain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) develops opportunities for women throughout the Star Wars universe. Kanata’s Yoda-like character was minimal in this film but will hopefully be developed in additional films alongside Phasma’s antagonist character. And General Leia and Captain Phasma’s high-ranking positions of power display two types of women that aren’t hampered by motherhood or military authority. Additionally, Disney and Star Wars pass the Bechdel-Wallace test through Maz Kanata and Rey’s interactions, focusing on Rey rather than Finn or another male character.

Yet, the men in Star Wars are also very important. Jon Greenberg, in “4 Reasons Why ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Matters Beyond Its Entertainment Value,” describes the importance of the film “pass[ing] the Race Bechdel Test (in which two named characters of Color discuss something other than White people) . . . [but the] test-passing conversation between Finn and Poe Dameron, played by Guatemalan American Oscar Isaac, almost didn’t happen.” The inclusion of characters of color within the film, beyond token characters like Lando Calrissian or Mace Windu, is certainly a step in the right direction. In fact, as Greenberg notes, their inclusion provides a new choice for young fans: “If you want to be a Star Wars hero, do you want to play the White woman, the Black guy, or the Latinx guy? Thus, millions of White children will likely role-play a character who is not a young White male.”

Nevertheless, there are also clear areas for improvement. For example, Phasma and Leia were fairly minor characters and even Kanata did have a lot of action within the film, leaving Rey and other male characters with the majority of the screen time. Although supportive fans have overwhelmed the trolling of Finn’s racial identity, Rey’s femininity, and Carrie Fisher’s appearance, the real variety of gender, sex, and racial identities is still missing. Lupita Nyong’o’s character, for example, is an animated alien—making women of color still primarily invisible within this film. As Greenberg also emphasizes, “casting folks of Color and then hiding their color is a problem . . . . it’s part of a long pattern of film and TV hiding, minimizing, or altering the characteristics of actors of Color, especially Black actors.”

Along with these issues within the film, there are also issues beyond the film. The hiring of several female team members and a screenwriter, for instance, have not paved the way for a female director within the franchise, signaling the need for future diversity in specific roles and throughout Hollywood in general. Bates also describes other issues: “While director JJ Abrams has made strides towards diversity both in casting the leads and in populating his crowd scenes, the memo doesn’t seem to have reached the merchandising team.” Rey’s problematic absence in certain toy and game packages and Hasbro’s later reactions signal a belated response that understandably has fans concerned.

Despite the continued need to hold films and the corporations behind their development accountable, there is reason to praise some of the improvements within the latest Star Wars installment. As Goldberg reiterates, “Rey embodies so much badassery (though, arguably, on traditional male terms) that children, regardless of gender, will want to become her.” This increase of visibility or representation within this major science-fiction franchise can not only lead to further improvements within future Star Wars films, but also in the sci-fi genre and Hollywood itself. Although my optimism is not enough to ensure this growth, I can certainly hope for better by wishing “May the Force be with you” to all those involved.

by Sarah C

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About Margaret Sloss Women's Center - ISU

The Margaret Sloss Women's Center promotes equity on the Iowa State University campus. Through a feminist lens, the center advocates for individuals and groups; provides support, referrals, community and programming; and maintains a safe space in the Sloss House.

Posted on January 19, 2016, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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